It was only $100. And it's only a small tree.
But every time Janet Griffin pulls into the driveway of her home in Leonard, Mich., the ITT Industries employee sees the sapling she bought with the company bonus she received last spring.
Early this year, the Auburn Hills, Mich., company began doling out cash gifts to valued employees.
The tree helps Griffin recollect her loyalties every time a headhunter tries to lure her away from ITT's fluid handling division to another company. Griffin, who estimates the cost of parts for ITT, has been targeted by recruiters ever since she successfully completed a six-month assignment to help Ford launch its Focus subcompact in Cologne, Germany.
'The award was significant to me because all of senior management became aware of what I did, not just department management,' says the 46-year-old Griffin. 'It's something extra. So I turn down every feeler I get from outside.'
As Griffin has learned, skilled white-collar employees are in short supply. Engineers and other employees with specialized skills have benefited from a nationwide labor squeeze, automakers' growing demands on suppliers to design vehicle components, a near-record sales year and the industry's accelerating product development cycle.
Moreover, all this comes at a time when the auto industry also is battling 'an image problem among so-called high-tech people,' said Ford Motor Co. Vice Chairman Peter Pestillo, in a speech last August. 'The perception among the general public, including educators and students, is that auto manufacturing is a second-class industry.'
Pestillo noted that the auto industry has an acute long-term need for replacement talent as more and more salaried personnel reach retirement age.
'Because we haven't done a lot of hiring for a lot of years, we're a fairly senior work force,' with an average age of about 45 and average length of service of more than 22 years, says John Quattrone, general director for human resources for General Motors' North American Operations.
GM expects to add 1,000 or more white-collar workers over the next year or so, mostly to replace other workers who retire or quit. The automaker expects to hold its overall number of salaried personnel to 50,000 workers, which does not include employees of Delphi Automotive Systems, its former in-house parts operation that was spun off this year.
Ford and DaimlerChrysler also are trying to maintain salaried employment levels in North America, at about 53,000 and 29,000, respectively.
Of course, the auto industry has brought some of its current labor squeeze upon itself. Instead of scrambling for good workers, during much of the last 15 years the companies cut their payrolls through early retirements, attrition and outright layoffs. Even recently, Ford, for example, was still rating salaried workers and then 'encouraging' the lowest-rated ones to retire.
But company executives say they need younger salaried employees who are up to date on new technology.
Engineers and other technologists are most in demand, and they are jumping companies as well as moving into and out of contract labor status at a pace never before experienced in the traditionally static automotive labor market.
Design engineers are in great demand right now, especially those with experience in specialties such as noise abatement. 'The biggest thing is math-based engineering skills, in part because we're now doing on computers what we used to do with clay modeling in terms of designing body parts,' says GM's Quattrone.
Says a 42-year-old design engineer at GM's Technical Center in Warren, Mich.: 'I get calls every couple of months now from headhunters, and it's always their usual approach: `Do you have any friends who might be interested in ...' a position, say, at another company. So far, though, I haven't been tempted to tell anybody I have a `friend' who's interested in moving from where I am.'
Similarly, technical workers based overseas have become another beneficiary of the talent squeeze in America.
'You won't see the architectural framework for software being developed in India, but more and more of the tedious programming arts are being done there,' says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. In a broader sense, he says, 'there will be a continued flow of engineering responsibility outside the U.S.'
FIND THEM, HOLD THEM
Most companies are doing far more to locate, recruit, equip and hold on to their coveted salaried workers than they did five years ago. GM, Ford and Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. have intensified their recruiting efforts on college campuses.
Johnson Controls Inc. is staging more one-day job fairs in communities where it has operations. Goodyear Tire Co. has just created its own 'university' to slake researchers' thirst for more knowledge. And the large cluster of suppliers in the Dayton, Ohio, area is helping local vocational schools hone their technical-training programs so new graduates will fit better and faster into the area's immense automotive hiring needs.
At Sinclair Community College in Dayton, for example, one increasingly popularly program is called Tooltown. Participants enter with a high school degree, learn tool-and-die making, receive extensive instruction in the considerable mathematical understanding that is involved and graduate to waiting local employers such as Dayton-Cincinnati Co., one of the nation's largest tool-and-die operations.
'They graduate with both the hand and the head skills they need,' says David Ponitz, Sinclair's president emeritus. 'They're semiskilled, but not in the classic sense of the term. They're actually technicians. The exciting part is that they start at around $25,000 a year, but in four to five years they'll be making $40,000 to $60,000. That's not too bad for two years of college.'
Goodyear has doubled its hiring of technical staffers from two years ago, to about 125 this year. The Akron, Ohio, tire company relies in part on a new Web-based application system, which quadrupled the number of resumes it received over the past year. And the company is importing more people from its Luxembourg-based European operations to fill U.S. openings, says George Sacco, Goodyear's director of human resources for technology and global products.
To keep the employees it hires, the company recently formed a continuing education program called the Goodyear Institute of Technology. Employees participate in the in-house program on company time. Credits apply toward master's degrees at local colleges as well.
The company treats the program like a real college, with slick brochures describing it as the 'educational forum for tire-related technologies' and carefully listing the credentials of its faculty.
More than 50 engineers applied for the 20 spots available in the program's first year. One who got accepted was Walt Allen, a senior engineer on Goodyear's advanced tire products team.
Allen says the institute offers him a chance to 'upgrade my technical expertise in an area of tire development and science, and that's hard to get anywhere else. Things like this also help retain our technical people. At least, that's the effect it's having on me.'
Allen's admission to the institute helped persuade him to turn down recent job feelers from Korean tire makers.
SMALL FRIES AND BIG GUYS
John Date, owner of Datappli Inc., is recruiting engineers from Mexican companies. Datappli - a Midland, Mich., firm that designs testing devices - is an automotive small fry.
Nevertheless, Date has hired away two engineers from larger companies in the last year and is trying to recruit a third from Delphi.
'I'm realizing that many people want to get involved in something much more entrepreneurial,' he says. 'We have stock options and may go public at some point. I'm figuring out how to show them where their value might best be amplified in a small organization rather than a large one.'
Johnson Controls is stepping up recruiting efforts in Holland and Plymouth, Mich., the sites of two technical centers. The seat maker is hiring 50 to 100 people a month to expand and to replace departed personnel for an engineering work force that now numbers 2,500.
A new tactic is one-day job fairs in the two towns. Last year, more than 300 people came in off the street to the company's Plymouth research center. After Johnson Controls beefed up its promotion of the event with local newspaper and radio ads this year, the event attracted more than 500 people.
'We made over a dozen offers on the spot that day, some of which were accepted that very day,' says Bruce Los, vice president of human resources for the company's automotive operations. 'To make offers on the spot was unheard of just a few years ago, but times clearly are changing.'
Los says Johnson Controls avoids financial incentives such as bonuses for employees who help recruit new engineers, or bidding up salaries to lure engineers from other companies.
'To always be the highest-paying organization is a tough long-term strategy,' he says. 'We're looking for people who want to build a career here through training and internal promotions.'
GenCorp, a Fairlawn, Ohio, supplier, pays headhunters 10 percent of the annual salary of a recruit. But GenCorp does not offer employees similar bonuses because 'if the employee is truly buying into being a team member, they're going to do what's right for the business and bring people in here,' says John Brogowicz, director of human resources and administration.
At GM, the company centralized its recruiting operation in January. The move gives GM 'one face on campus,' Quattrone says. Centralized hiring makes it easier for GM to handle job applications over the Web at its central www.gm.com/careers site.
The company's goal now is to respond to every application within one to two days, Quattrone says.
'Timing is everything. A quick response in a hot market might get you that candidate vs. a competitor. The kind of people who are most in demand right now are the types who are going to shop you on the Web.'
GETTING THEM EARLY
Automakers and major suppliers are trying to forge early ties with young engineers. GM is donating unprecedented amounts of sophisticated, math-based computers to colleges now, Quattrone says.
Senior GM executives also visit key schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Northwestern University. The recruiters tout cutting-edge research on projects such as alternative-fuel vehicles and the OnStar satellite communications system.
If GM North America President Ron Zarrella lectures about brand management at Northwestern's Kellogg School, GM might raffle a few vehicles off for a week or two of use by students, Quattrone says.
Suppliers also are visiting college campuses. Even tiny Datappli plans visits to a half dozen campuses this year, compared with none last year.
Ford has begun peering back even further into the educational process to help develop future employees. Three years ago, the company founded Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Mich., operated in conjunction with Henry Ford Museum. The school now has 100 students from 19 Detroit-area communities who are being groomed with a curriculum that emphasizes technology and communications.
'We're trying to consider how far back in the pipeline we have to reach to get people with the right skill levels, attitudes and behaviors, and get them affiliated with Ford,' says Renee Lerche, Ford's director of work force development.
Forty-six percent of the students are minority members. 'We are particularly concerned about women and minorities as we do more hiring because we want to be diverse,' Lerche says.
Similarly, Ford operates a program in 76 school districts around the country in which it trains teachers to help get 11th and 12th graders interested in manufacturing careers. The program includes a paid internship in a factory. So far, 86 percent of participants go on to higher education.
Despite the success of such efforts, however, Lerche says companies no longer can count on the unquestioning loyalty of their white-collar employees. 'Young people anymore don't have the mind set of coming to stay in one company for 30 years,' she says. 'It's not because they're unhappy with you. It's just that that is the mentality - and the market.'